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Two years ago I signed up for the Men’s Health Staff Challenge on a Friday night over a few beers, as a laugh. It got pretty serious pretty quickly after that, five early mornings a week in a basement boxing gym, too many terrifying nights in the ring, and I came out after three months a changed man: stronger, disciplined, determined.
Fourteen weeks ago I signed up for my second Men’s Health Staff Challenge, in a Monday morning meeting, like it was nothing. I put my name down next to trail running, thinking I’d seen myself at my worst, thinking this would be easy. I think at one point I said, Hey, it’s the mountain, how tough can it be? Turns out: pretty damn tough.
I found Race Fit when I didn’t really know I was looking for. At the time I was running 3km, sometimes five, plodding along slowly and hating all of it. I was looking for a training program, I suppose, or some kind of guidance – anything just to help me enjoy it more. The first time I met Chris he said he was going to get me stronger, turn me into a better, faster runner. I didn’t know it then, but I do now: the biggest gains are in your head.
This past weekend I ran my first half-marathon. As an added bonus, it was straight up a mountain: 12km along the beachfront, a few of just plain bouldering, then all the way up and over the Kogelberg Biosphere, as steep as anything, a narrow single track between more mountains and a sheer drop, and 10km home through a forest of Proteas as high as your head, waterfalls everywhere and rivers up to your waist.
The Kleinmond leg of the Wildrunner Trail Series is the last of four and by far the most serious. The short course is about 8km, the long course 15. I upgraded to the XL on the morning: a hardcore 24km that takes the best parts of the short and long routes and adds another vicious climb, straight towards the top of the world, right near the end.
This is not something I’d ever thought I’d do, or be able to do – even when I signed up for trail running and thought it would be easy work. Fourteen weeks ago I was running 3km routes around my house, then Chris got me ready to take 10km, along the Camps Bay pipe track, and 15km in the Don Lock in the streets of Claremont, but even when I arrived in Kleinmond on Saturday morning, 24km still seemed a jump too far.
Strength is important. It’s been three months since I first walked into Race Fit, and since then I’ve done a hundred days of deadlifts, bench pressing, chin-ups and all kinds of other horrible things – kettle bell swings, lateral step-ups, shoulder presses – all of them designed to overload various muscle groups, get them stronger and more durable and ready, ultimately, for the mountain. In the time since we started this Staff Challenge I’ve doubled my max deadlift, covered 10 marathons’ worth of distance over 14 weeks, and taken my quickest 5km time to a whisker over 20 minutes.
Fourteen weeks ago I wanted to be stronger, better, faster. Up on the Kogelberg mountains I was all of those and one more: I actually enjoyed it.
Mental strength is more important. This is not something I thought I would need, when I signed up, but then I tried to run straight up Newlands Contour and nearly killed myself, spent a Sunday hurting myself for 13km at Lourensford, suffered up Warwick Wine Estate the next weekend and nearly gave up right then and there. Mountains are beautiful places: the clean air, the vast expanse of nothing and no one, the views – oh man, those views – and they are brutal places too. There is something spooky up there, something desperate in its loneliness, and the unique pain that comes from throwing yourself at something so great, so unyielding as a piece of ancient rock.
On Saturday I got home after running up the Kogelberg for three hours and my legs were broken and my blisters were bleeding, but I got out my laptop and started googling upcoming races, new mountains, different trails. Because after fourteen weeks I ran my first half-marathon, straight up a mountain, and now I know what strength is. Pick up enough heavy things, row enough crazy speeds and spend enough time suffering on an assault bike, and your brain will start to hurt. You get that closed feeling in your lungs and that panicky feeling in your pulse; you start thinking you’re about to die and you start looking around for the door. This is how you find the strength to look at a mountain and want to run over it.
Chris has taught me a few things over the past three months. How to run better, and recover faster, and how to be stronger, and how to enjoy myself while working hard. He’s taught me that if you suffer enough first thing in the morning, in the cold and the dark, there is no such thing as too far, or too fast. He has taught me how to reach the top of a giant mountain, tired and sore, and look out over the world and welcome it. But most of all he has taught me how to be stronger, run further and go faster, forever.
Race Fit is an endurance-sports performance focused gym in Claremont, Cape Town. Chris Lippstreu, with a master’s in Sports Science, aims to improve performance through strength training with the use of kettlebells, Olympic lifting and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Find out more at www.race-fit.co.za
The Spur Winter Trail Series is organised by Wildrunner, one of the premier trail running organisers in South Africa, who have run over 200 trail running events across the country. Other events organised by Wildrunner include the Mountain Challenge Series, Wildrun and Sanlam Cape Town Marathon Peace Trail Runs. For more info on Wildrunner events, visit wildrunner.co.za